The White House said Monday it welcomes a debate over the electronic surveillance programs exposed by a National Security Agency contractor, even as federal agents began building a case against the self-proclaimed leaker.
Edward Snowden told the British newspaper the Guardian that he left behind his family and a six-figure job in Hawaii to reveal the extent of the NSA's collection of telephone and Internet data, which he called "an existential threat to democracy." The 29-year-old worked for computer consultant Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor for the U.S. electronic intelligence agency.
Snowden said he expects to be prosecuted for the leak, and a federal law enforcement official said Monday that FBI agents have begun an investigation by searching the 29-year-old's home and computers and seeking interviews with his girlfriend, relatives, friends and co-workers.
Snowden outed himself Sunday in the Guardian, which began publishing details of his revelations last week. He said he expects to be prosecuted but acted in hopes of ending what he called an excessively intrusive system, the Guardian reported.
"The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to," Snowden told the paper. He was also the source for stories on the NSA's operations in The Washington Post, that newspaper reported.
Don Borelli, a former FBI agent and U.S. legal attache overseas, said computer forensics will be an important element of any case against Snowden, who took off for Hong Kong before the stories were published.
"You need to corroborate what he said," Borelli told CNN. "You need to be able to prove the elements of a crime."
Snowden checked out of his Hong Kong hotel Monday but remains in the semiautonomous Chinese territory, said Ewen MacAskill, the Guardian's Washington bureau chief.
MacAskill told CNN that Snowden planned his disclosure and his getaway in great detail -- "but this next phase, the phase we're in now, he was almost vague about it," MacAskill said. "I don't think he actually knew or even cared that much. His main objective was to get the information about the level of surveillance out into the public domain and then beyond that, he didn't care."
Snowden's revelations fueled new debate about the U.S. government's collection of records of domestic telephone calls and overseas Internet activity in the global hunt for terrorists and criminals. Supporters of the programs say they are legal and have yielded evidence that has helped put terror plotters in prison, though many of the details remain classified.
Obama administration officials and leaders of the intelligence committees in Congress say the program undergoes periodic review by all three branches of government, and that the content of Americans' calls is not being monitored.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday the measures are a necessary middle way between total privacy and unacceptable threat. He said President Barack Obama would be willing to consider changes should a national debate show the public wants them -- but he wryly noted, "This is not the manner by which he hoped to have the debate."
"What I can tell you is that the programs are judged by the president and by his national security team to be necessary and effective. They are also accorded oversight by all three branches of government, as is appropriate, and it is also the case that these programs and the general principle about finding the balance between our security interests and our need and desire for privacy is something that we should constantly engage in.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, called Snowden "a defector" who should be turned over to the United States with an eye toward harsh prosecution.
"This person is dangerous to the country," King said on CNN's "Starting Point" on Monday.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, fumed that Snowden committed "an act of treason," while Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein questioned whether his access to government secrets was as extensive as he claims.
"I listened carefully to what he said, and what he said is, you know, 'I can get access to where every asset is in the world and their stations and their missions,' and I've been told that isn't possible," said Feinstein, D-California.
She added, "I don't really have any way of knowing how adept he is in the computer world. ... I can't say he's overstating anything in these programs. Maybe he's overstating his prowess."
But Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist who was the lead author on last week's stories, told CNN's "The Lead" that Snowden has revealed secrets that were being kept only from American citizens.
"Terrorists already know the U.S. government tries to surveil their communications," Greenwald said. "Nothing that we revealed helps, quote-unquote, the terrorists. All we did was tell our fellow citizens of the United States and around the world the extent and capabilities of how vast the surveillance state is and the reasons why it needs scrutiny and accountability. And the only things we damaged are the reputation of American political officials, not national security."
Greenwald said he knew "generally" where Snowden has gone, but added, "I'm not going to disclose information about his whereabouts. He's capable of doing that himself if he wants to."
Extradition for Snowden?
A major question is whether Hong Kong, where Snowden fled, would extradite him to face charges in the United States.
Although Hong Kong is part of communist-ruled China, the former British colony has a separate ruling system that allows a free press and tolerates political dissent. Hong Kong's extradition treaty with the United States has exceptions for political crimes and cases when handing over a criminal suspect would harm the "defense, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy" of either party.
"I think he looked around, this seemed the safest bet," said MacAskill.